George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teacher Development

Teaching Isn’t a Personality Contest

One way to become an exceptional teacher is to focus less on traits like humor and charisma and more on self-awareness and interactions with students.

October 25, 2019
Illustration concept comparing men in profile
Roy Scott / Ikon Images / Alamy Images

In Education Week Teacher’s “What Makes a Great Teacher: Pedagogy or Personality?” middle school language arts teacher and curriculum coach Ariel Sacks explores the qualities of an excellent teacher. Does the ideal teacher possess a near-perfect balance of pedagogical mastery and charming personality? Sacks says that the latter—the so-called “it factor” in teaching—is a myth: “The idea that a great personality makes a great teacher is fantasy.”

Sacks recalls observing a teacher with a vibrant personality who connected with students on the first day through shared experiences but struggled as the days wore on because she didn’t instruct in an engaging way, opting instead for dull assignments distributed by the school. The attention and respect of the students waned, and the teacher’s lively personality was not enough to yield success in her classroom.

Sacks argues, “Great teaching requires an awareness of all of the factors at play in a particular moment, to take advantage of opportunities and anticipate and address challenges.” She cites five awareness principles outlined by Vanessa Rodriguez in the book The Teaching Brain: An Evolutionary Trait at the Heart of Education: “awareness of the self as a teacher, awareness of the teaching process, awareness of the learner, awareness of interaction, and awareness of context.”

So hope is not lost for teachers who aren’t naturally charismatic or funny—one can foster a connection with students through an awareness of them as individuals. And the need to better understand one’s students seems obvious to most educators. For Sacks, the revelation came when she realized how much of being a good educator rests on understanding herself. It “really boils down to our ability to develop a strong sense of ourselves in our teaching role,” Sacks writes.

Student-centered learning doesn’t mean ignoring one’s own role in the process, and teachers may benefit most from realistically assessing their own talents and challenges. Reflecting on these strengths and needs can help teachers improve their practice.

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